This is the text of an article published in the Yorkshire Post today:

Has British journalism really improved? Or was the Leveson Inquiry just something to entertain us until business returned to normal while no one was looking?

I guess we are about to find out. The Minister for Civil Society announced on the eve of the Conservative Party conference that he was resigning because a Sunday newspaper was about to publish allegations about his private life.

This had all the hallmarks of a sting, and I wondered what might be the public interest that would justify such an action on the part of a newspaper. We soon found out.

I imagine most observers are more embarrassed than hostile to the ex-Minister. Sending intimate pictures of yourself over the internet is naïve and shows poor judgement.

But the journalist who stung Brooks Newmark had been phishing, had invented a character, lied in e-conversation and illicitly used photos of other women to pretend to be the woman he was pretending to be.

If this doesn’t count as entrapment, then what does? And to have such a ploy used to uphold a purist moral stance is at least questionable.

The defence used in such cases – and which got a bit of exposure during the Leveson process – is that the information derived is somehow in the public interest.

Of course, this assumes that the public interest is being served… rather than the prurient interest of the public being entertained. How would society be the poorer for not knowing what we now know as a result of the sting?

Well, following the Leveson Report, the body that has replaced the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) now faces its first serious task.

By publishing the sting on Brooks Newmark, is Trinity Mirror in breach of the code agreed by the Press? The newly-established Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) is still run by the Press – one of the criticisms of its predecessor.

The Press continues to be judged by its own, and the ‘independence’ in its title does not yet convince sceptical observers or victims of press abuse. In the case before it, we will see how independent the new body really is.

The tragedy of all this is that the behaviours that led to the Leveson Inquiry being set up in the first place do not seem to have gone away.

The closure of the News of the World and the prosecution of prominent newspaper leaders seemed to offer an opportunity to clean out the stable. But, read Hack Attack – Nick Davies’s disturbing book on the phone hacking saga – and one questions whether drama and gesture actually changes behaviour and culture.

Set against this domestic business, however, is the crying need for good journalism in Britain. The bad cases hit the headlines (eventually), but we too easily take for granted the importance of excellent journalism.

We only know about what goes on in some parts of the world because journalists have the nerve to go to where the action is and report – in language and images that are comprehensible to the appropriate audience – what is going on. And many pay with their lives – 71 journalists have died as a result of reporting on the Syrian conflict alone over the last three years.

The sort of courage that compels individuals to risk their lives in pursuit of the real story (for example, potential genocide) is admirable and defies the comfortable cynicism of those who sit in armchairs complaining about the world.

Yet, this sort of reporting is not the norm, is it? We might want to ask where this sort of work sits in relation to the human interest gossip stuff that seems to sell newspapers and magazines at home.

Journalism cannot be identified solely in terms of foreign or crisis reporting – fast-moving, often dangerous, always provisional. Seen in this context, stinging an MP looks a bit cheap and easy.

It does, though, bring into sharp relief the need for good journalism at every level.

Social media allow immediate and unmediated reportage from everywhere. Except, of course, that all reportage – even images on Twitter from Tahrir Square – are mediated by the preferences, context, priorities and subjectivities of the person who posts it.

So, where is the place for intelligent and informed critical reflection on events? Contrary to popular assumption, not every opinion is valid. A good democracy needs a good, free Press.

The problem seems to be that the great British public prefers to read tittle-tattle about relative trivia, creating moral scapegoats that make the rest of us feel morally superior. We get the Press we pay for. If we want good journalism, we will have to pay for it.

What follows is the text of the Derek Hole lecture (in faith, society and ethics) I delivered at De Montfort University last night. It ends on the same question I posed in the St Wilfrid Lecture at Ripon Cathedral last year. It was merely coincidental that yesterday saw (a) the Prime Minister withdraw from negotiations with other party leaders on a framework for press accountability (post-Leveson) and (b) the arrest of four Mirror Group journalists for alleged phone hacking-related offences.

The big question still remains unanswered: why do those who own/run the press object to legislative underpinning of their regulation when they insist on it for everybody else?

Anyway, here’s the basic text:

The title ‘Faith in the Media’ is, of course, deliberately ambiguous. How the media represent and understand faith is a different matter from whether we should trust the media and the reality (or version of reality) they mediate to us. In this lecture I wish to address both questions, but in a discursive rather than purely analytical way. In doing so I am conscious of the limitations of time and scope, and so might well open up questions I then cannot address adequately here.

First, I will say something about who and what we mean when we speak of the ‘media’. Secondly, I will explore a little how the media work. Next, I will look at how the media handle faith and religion. And, finally, I will pose some ethical questions arising from our survey of media and faith.

Who are the ‘media’?

Did you hear about the Bradford Batman on Monday of last week? I was launching the new Dean of Bradford in the city centre before walking back to my car at the Cathedral. En route I was phoned by a freelance journalist who asked what I thought of the Bradford Batman. I am afraid I was correctly quoted in the Independent: “I think it was dead funny. But, look at the waistline and the tights – I don’t think he’s that fit.” He was later identified as a friend of the guy he’d handed in to police.

The fact that you heard about it isn’t very interesting in itself. It is just a story that is here one day and gone the next. Mere trivial entertainment and it didn’t exactly change the world. But, what is interesting is how you heard about it. I saw it on twitter. Others read about it in the local (or, subsequently, national) newspapers. Others saw it on websites as it flew through the internet’s synapses. Others saw it on the telly or heard about it on the radio.

In other words, the whole world now knows about the Bradford Batman… and they know it because of the media. Media are simply that: means of communicating information, data, opinion, image, analysis, etc. So, when we speak about the media at all, we are, in fact, speaking about the means of communication and not the content.

Yet, the media are not a ‘given’ in this world. Thirty years ago we would have heard the word ‘media’ and thought ‘radio, television and newspapers’. Now, however, some elements of print media – newspapers especially – are struggling to compete in a world of instant news, instant communication, free access to information via the Internet, and a lack of effective business models to enable such print media to survive. If they don’t make a profit as businesses, they must get cross-subsidised from other areas of the business’s operation or they cut back until they bleed to death.

Now, we might want to say “so what?” to this challenge. A good social Darwinian would just mouth ‘survival of the fittest’ and go back to his iPad. But, this change in the world has consequences that go beyond mere economic models and shape how we see the world and live in it. If you want to see what lies behind the events that gave rise to the Leveson Inquiry, you might well start here: to what extent does democracy require a properly-resourced independent press and what happens when profit becomes the ‘end’ instead of the mediation, analysis and comment on how the world is and who makes it that way?

In the context of the Leveson Inquiry we are all aware of the bad behaviour of some elements of the press. Among some of the dramatic and often shocking scenes from the inquiry, it was salutary to see Murdochs Junior and Senior brought back to face detailed questioning not only of practice, but of motive and of the nature of the ethical pool in which their media organs have been swimming. And just as goldfish do not usually analyse the nature of the water in their bowl, neither have some media operators ever critically analysed the ethical nature of the air that they breathe. So, Leveson dragged out an appalling record of (alleged) lying, duplicity, abuse of power, misrepresentation, deliberate defamation, corruption of public officials and police officers, implicit blackmail, criminality of a variety of types… and the constantly emerging picture still begs many questions – not only of those who perpetrated this culture, but also of those of us who fed it by buying the product, not challenging destructive media practices, not questioning the effects of such media behaviours, and feeding the monster by being easily entertained by other people’s destruction or humiliation.

Not many years ago Fleet Street dominated print media (a term that has only been invented recently) and newspapers at national, regional and local level enjoyed wide readerships. More importantly, they offered an intelligent scrutiny of political power – at the local level by having journalists dedicated to following local council debates and scrutinising the papers that fed those debates. Which is one simple way of illustrating that they played an important role in the democratic discourse, posing the questions the rest of us didn’t think of because we didn’t have the time to read all the paperwork. That’s just one example. Now, however, no newspaper (at any level) makes a profit, journalists do not have the time to do the work they used to do, and there are far fewer of them.

But, it isn’t the dominance of radio and television that has done this. Rather, it is the phenomenal sweep of the internet and mobile communications that has led to people dropping the buying of hard copy and obtaining their news and entertainment on their laptops, iPads or smartphones. And there’s probably no going back. Why? Because the digital revolution is so fast and deep that traditional print media cannot keep up. On Monday evening I was at a media reception at Lambeth Palace and the Guardian’s Andrew Brown described his profession as ‘dying’. Jerome Taylor, the excellent Independent journalist who was also there, tweeted on Tuesday the loss of a further 80 jobs at the Telegraph and pleaded: “Pay for the news!”

So, while many of us marvel at and enjoy the opportunities afforded by the new digital platforms, we are also aware of the cost – at many levels – of this radical change in the ways in which people engage with the media. For example, as Nick Davies points out repeatedly in his important and challenging book Flat Earth News, journalists are increasingly thin on the ground, have little time to get out of the office and away from the computer, can no longer provide the detailed scrutiny of power that served the interests of democratic accountability so well. PR – and it is reckoned that there are now more PR professionals and lobbyists than journalists – output finds its way into reportage unchecked – not because journalists are incompetent, but simply because there isn’t the money to pay for enough of them to do the job we have expected of them on behalf of the public interest and the common good. In other words, reduced professional journalism creates a democratic deficit that impacts on us all. If we won’t pay for it, we won’t get it, and there is a societal cost.

But, journalists cannot be paid with thin air or the gratitude of a loving public. Traditional media have increasingly tried to bolster their particular medium using traditional methods. Take, for example, your local newspaper. Like many people, you probably hate the fact that the front page is always headlined with murder, catastrophe, sexual deviancy, conflict or destructiveness of one sort or another. But, the editor will tell you that good news doesn’t sell; that bad news does. Somehow. It is the unusualness of an event that makes it newsworthy – a breach in a world that we assume should be both ordered and orderly. Let me illustrate briefly.

Several years ago, on my way to Guildford to preach at a service for the judges of the County of Surrey, I passed a newspaper billboard (for the Croydon Advertiser) that proclaimed: ‘Lollipop lady hit with stick’. From the pulpit I asked the judges which bit of this headline I was supposed to be shocked by: that it was a lollipop lady (not a man or a boy); that it was a lollipop lady (rather than an electrician or a lawyer); that she was hit (rather than poked or tickled); or that the hitting was done with a stick (rather than a fork or a wet lettuce)? The judges just laughed under their wigs – which wasn’t very helpful and didn’t answer my questions.

Anyway, the point is that newspapers try to address the decline in traditional newspaper consumption by trying to sell more newspapers – and they think that this might be achieved by having dramatic front pages rather than good news stories involving local puppies being loved by happy children. But, this solution doesn’t actually address the problem: the decline in sales is not related to the blandness of the product; it is because of the decline in usefulness or accessibility of the medium itself. Or, as Bill Clinton didn’t say, ‘It’s the platform, stupid’.

There are those observers, of course, who would say that the result of the economic and financial pressures, the vast reduction in the number of working journalists in various media, and the plurality of media outlets (you can get thousands of TV channels from satellite platforms) is a dumbing down of content. Even the news has to be presented in a way that entertains us. We can’t concentrate; so, we get brief, lowest-common-denominator infotainment – what some commentators think is just the latest way of anaesthetising us from the horrible and complex realities of the world. Neil Postman pointed to this in the great title he chose for his seminal book: Amusing Ourselves to Death.

The challenge for the media, then, is to discover the sorts of business plans that will allow for businesses to make a sufficient profit to enable them to employ professional journalists who have the competence, experience and conditions (time and scope) to dig into the stories that matter… in order to expose corruption, spread good news, interpret the world, shine new light on matters we thought we understood. At the moment traditional print media are surviving with massive financial losses, and by cross-subsidies from other branches of media businesses. All serious newspapers are shedding jobs.

The deficit for society is that we run the risk of diminishing the importance of reflective and critical thought that has had the time and concentration to do the detail that is necessary if power is to be held to account – especially at local level. If, as some exponents of Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere maintain, everyone is a journalist today, then pity help us. Information can come at us from any part of the world – and that is good – but who has the time, expertise and accumulated wisdom to order it, scrutinise it, think about it and then present it accurately as ‘news’, argument or interpretation? Again, the social Darwinian will shrug and say it will all just sort itself out; but try telling that to the people and institutions that have been shredded in the process.

In the brave new world of social media, the two keywords are: interconnectivity and interactivity. If the Telegraph stitches me up, I have recourse via my blog, Twitter and other media to argue and tell the truth; I no longer have to rely on having a printed apology or a letter printed with the goodwill of the editor. In that sense the media have become more democratic – more open to everyone. But, as I have indicated, openness is no guarantee of accuracy, reasonableness, truthfulness or wisdom.

So, just as, for example, newspapers need other media in order to maintain a voice, so does any organisation or institution now need to avail itself of print, website, social media engagement and interconnected communication. But, the hard bit is that such engagement now demands interactivity: not preaching, but conversation; not propaganda, but attentive dialogue.

A couple of years ago I was in Rome for a communications conference with the Diocesan Communications Officers of the Church of England. During one session at a pontifical university we were introduced to a new web portal called pope2you.com. This was presented as the Vatican grasping the potential of emerging social media in order to connect with a new generation of young people. Except, of course, that it was still the Vatican telling people what to think and believe, rather than an invitation to a conversation that involved the Vatican listening to anyone else. They understood interconnectivity, but didn’t quite grasp the interactivity that characterises social media today.

And at this point we might digress into some thinking about how the media work and where ethics fit in.

Looking through an ethical lens at the media

Ethics has to do not only with how we behave, but also why we behave the way we behave. That is to say, when thinking about ethics we need to pay attention to the world view, the thinking and moral assumptions that drive the ways in which we live and choose and relate. So, any consideration of media ethics involves not only a questioning of the media – those who own, work, drive and create media content – but also the rest of us: that is, we who consume media output in any of a million ways. If journalists and media operators need to be subject to ethical scrutiny, so do those who consume their product. As Harold Nicolson observed, “We are all inclined to judge ourselves by our ideals; others by their acts.”

So, having surveyed very briefly and superficially the changing and challenging media scene, let’s move on to think about the ethics of all of us who create, own, run or consume the media products. I want to do this by first establishing a fundamental principle – fundamental, that is, to a Christian world view.

A Christian anthropology begins from the belief that every person is made in the imago Dei and is, therefore, infinitely valuable. Being so created, each person has freedom and responsibility… and is accountable to God and others who are also made in his image. We are to ‘cultivate the earth’ – that is develop and explore and grow the world – including technology. But, when we lose sight of the value of human being, we will quickly find that anything… eventually… goes. Every person, regardless of their particular compromises and failings, being made in the image of God, is to be respected.

Furthermore, every human being is redeemable. That is to say, it isn’t hard to find the muck of human life; but, do we believe that people can change? A Christian anthropology argues that people – made in the image of God – are redeemable. Therefore, how they behave or misbehave now is not the final word – something Dr Rowan Williams has a lot to say about (mainly in relation to language) in his marvellous book on Dostoyevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction.

Thirdly, human society offers a context of mutual relational accountability. This means that those who wish to stand in judgement on others must, themselves, be accountable. In other words, no hypocrisy on any side.

Now, this is where, as they say, the rubber hits the Leveson road.

The phone hacking scandal is coloured with the deepest of ironies in that those editors and journalists who ‘lost their moral bearings’ have argued that they were only wanting to expose the truth about other people’s lives – that they have a responsibility to (and I quote) ‘hold power to account’. Yet, of course, they located ‘power’ somewhere else and assumed themselves to be the arbiters of truth, the guardians of integrity, the defenders of a moral world. Some journalists still maintain – without the hint of a smirk – that they and their organs have no power… that they simply expose, tell stories, shine a light, describe reality, and leave it up to the now-better-informed to make their own judgements and draw their own conclusions. This is wilful nonsense. Those who have the power to intimidate politicians, destroy reputations, relationships and lives, consider themselves immune from normal moral and legal accountability, are people who shape the world, create a discourse, and not only set agendas for public life, but also assume the right – nay, responsibility – to act as incontrovertible witness, judge and jury in a society they purport to merely observe.

So, I ask: Is it not deeply hypocritical that those who do the judging and exposing are not themselves subject to the same accountability? During the MPs expenses business I received an excoriatingly angry email from one of the journalists involved. I had said on my blog that I thought the newspaper should be sued for incitement to criminal activity – they paid money to get hold of what was confidential data. He argued that this exposure was in the public interest. I asked if we could see the expenses bills of newspaper editors – on the grounds that they also powerfully shape the public discourse and more. He wasn’t pleased. (And he wasn’t at the media reception at Lambeth Palace on Monday…)

This ignores the real power that elements of the media have exercised over other people. The fact that a fact about someone is true does not mean that everybody should know it. And something has gone badly wrong when people – flesh and blood human beings – are turned into commodities for other people’s entertainment and titillation at the hands of people who then deny any responsibility for the consequences of their actions on other people’s lives.

When people are misrepresented or misused – held to account by people who hitherto have considered themselves to be unaccountable or untouchable – they betray an empty denial of humanity or human value. And once we start doing that with one category of person, we won’t find it easy to stop the habit. Witness the News of the World. Or listen to Nick Davies – the Guardian journalist who, against all sorts of pressures and threats, doggedly pursued the phone hacking story until it could be hidden no longer: “I know a fair bit about sex and drugs and hypocrisy in Fleet Street: executives whose papers support the war against drugs while shoving cocaine up their nostrils in the office toilets; reporters who attack the sexual adventures of others while routinely dropping their own trousers at the first scent of a willing secretary.”

Journalists may counter that they report the world as disinterested observers. I put it to you that they are shapers of the world along with those about whom they report. There is no moral neutrality to be found here. Which is why I support the need for legislative back up of any new post-Leveson code.

Now, this brings us to a second ethical lens through which to look at the media in general and journalism in particular: representation of truth.

In 2007 I took a group of twenty clergy and lay people from the Croydon Episcopal Area to visit our link diocese of Central Zimbabwe. Times were tough: inflation was by then running at a mere 10,000% and unemployment was reckoned to be around 80%. There was no power, water was not getting pumped into Gweru, people were beginning to get hungry and ill. We were invited to meet the Governor of the Midlands Province – a nice man who welcomed us to his offices. He had invited some of his senior people, but also a journalist with the state-owned newspaper in Harare. Following a robust exchange during the meeting, this journalist cornered me afterwards and pursued his point… on camera. At one point I argued that a confident country with nothing to hide would not ban foreign journalists and then complain about (to their mind) misrepresentation from outside the borders. However, I made the mistake of adding that in a democratic country we all run the risk of being misquoted or misrepresented, but that we also have the opportunity to challenge and respond. This became the next day’s front page headline: ‘Bishop: it is all UK media lies’. Apparently, I had seen no problems in Zimbabwe – it was all UK media misrepresentation.

I spent nearly £400 on my mobile phone pre-empting the damage back in London with the Foreign Office, Lambeth Palace, Church House Westminster and the Diocese of Southwark. To make it worse, a couple of months later a glossy magazine called New African was paraded all over WH Smiths with a three page ‘interview’ with me in which I denied any problems in Zimbabwe. I had done no interview and had no contact with the magazine at all. But, if you google me, you will still get links to this story and there are still people who give me grief when they see it online. (Still, I also saw a headline that read: ‘Prophet drowns during baptism’ and that compensated for the grief. Lousy prophet…)

Now, ‘truth’ is a difficult concept when discussing the media anyway. After all, it is not only the people involved that are complex, but also the technology itself influences and sometimes shapes content. For example, an important news story – and you have to ask who decides what counts as ‘news’ – might get dropped on the television because there are no good pictures; which suggests that the content only matters if it fits a particular medium. Which, of course, is questionable.

So, let’s try to pull some of this together and illustrate what actually goes on here. The notion that the media – as they are collectively known – simply reflect the reality of the world in which they are set is at the same time both true and nonsense.

It is utter nonsense because any story or programme or article is written for a purpose and in a particular context; furthermore, it is written or presented or edited in a particular way, with choices being made along the way about what stays in and what gets left out. And these choices are largely driven by unconscious assumptions about how the world is, why it is the way it is, and why anything matters in the first place. In other words, the worldviews of the editors or makers shape not only the material, but also how the material is presented.

For example, a few years ago there was a short series of programmes about the church in Britain today. Every reference to black Pentecostal churches was set against film of a packed congregation on a Sunday morning, everyone dancing and singing to a classy band. Every reference to mainline churches was accompanied by pictures of empty or derelict church buildings. Why not film in a large and growing church instead? Well, the answer is that the visuals were intended to reinforce a particular line.

And context? Well, don’t expect the Daily Mail to tell a good story about the EU or good immigrants – such stories just don’t serve the editorial end to which the stories are the means.

So, if that explains the ‘nonsense’, how on earth can it simultaneously be true to say that “the media simply reflect the reality of the world in which they are set”? Well, simply and rather obviously, because the uncritical assumptions that motivate editorial choice and shape understanding of the world and its events – that create meaning – are too often a reflection of that world and its dominant assumptions. And the way in which ‘faith’ or ‘religion’ is treated in the media – particularly broadcast and print media – too often betrays an ignorance about both faith as a motivating phenomenon and how faith works in shaping individuals and communities.

(I have long argued that RE in schools ought to include a compulsory component that deals with what worldviews are, how they are constructed, how they filter ‘reality’, and how they shape community. If the media betray ignorance of some basic tools for understanding how the world and its people operate, then this is not because media people are particularly thick, but because this prejudice-driven ignorance characterizes our society. And don’t get me started on politics.)

I make this point here because there is a rumour around that ‘the media’ are neutral and that certain views about the world and meaning are, therefore, also neutral. What I mean by this is that many in the media assume that a secular humanist assumption is neutral, whereas a religious world view is located somewhere up the loony scale where, being a problem, it needs to be confined to the realms of private opinion and not given space in the public discourse. Of course, this uncritically privileges the secular humanist worldview, but without any recognition that such privileging is the result of selective and uncritical thinking.

Now, I am not saying that all media representation of religion is negative; that, clearly, would be nonsense. And there are signs that broadcast programming, at least, is beginning to show evidence of more imaginative and adventurous coverage of religious themes. I chair the Sandford St Martin Trust and our remit is to promote excellence in religious broadcasting – actually, a rather narrow remit in a rapidly changing media world. Although we have seen a reduction by commissioning editors of programmes with religious or moral themes, this year the quality of such programming has been excellent.

Think, for example, of BBC2’s remarkable Goodbye to Canterbury on New Year’s Day in which the reputedly uncommunicative outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams, effortlessly took his audience through history, geography, philosophy, theology, architecture, art, music, literature, languages, spirituality and poetry as he paid close attention to the building of Canterbury Cathedral – opening our eyes to how ancient stones and relics can become signposts in the modern world. And they say he couldn’t ‘do media’…

Or consider Tom Holland’s slightly repetitive and controversial exploration of the emergence of Islam in Channel 4’s Islam and Empire. What began as an attempt to make sense of the death-throes of antiquity ended up running an enquiring finger over the fault-line that reverberates through the contemporary world: between science and religion, between history and faith.

Or, finally, the guaranteed entertainment of watching Professor Richard Dawkins dig philosophical holes for himself as he enters discussion with people who have acquainted themselves with science, but who easily expose his ignorance of anything but science. BBC1’s Science v Religion, although assuming a conflict that most of us reject – on the grounds that science and religion address different questions – brought the erudite former Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks into conversation with Dawkins, Baroness Susan Greenfield and Professor Jim Al-Khalili. Intelligent, searching, cultured. Mostly.

The point is that there are good examples of the media taking religion seriously. And part of the remit of the Sandford St Martin Trust is to encourage such programming, trying to persuade commissioning editors and programme makers that religion is fertile ground for good, interesting, entertaining subject matter.

Now, this matters today more than ever. Faith is not merely a worldview – a set of private beliefs that shouldn’t be given access to the public sphere because it will only cause trouble when it gets there. Faith is also about praxis – how people live their lives, shape their societies, order their priorities, work and play, build communities, and understand the value of how and where they live their lives. Faith is about stories of people and their communities, of living and dying, of love and loss, of triumph and defeat.

And some of us would go as far as to claim (which I haven’t got time to develop here) that even the atheists and secular humanists have worldviews that need examination and testing… on the grounds that even the fiercest rationalist lives to some extent by faith.

What I am arguing for here, however, is not simply that the media should learn to understand religion and faith and then privilege it with greater airtime, but that they should see religion as more than an irrational private belief system that is only interesting when it forms the backdrop for images of conflict. And what this reveals is the need for the media to be open to the need for intelligent interpretation of religion in the world. Hence, the argument put by Roger Bolton and others that the BBC, at least, should appoint a Religion Editor – just as they have a Politics Editor, Economics Editor, Arts Editor, Business Editor, Sports Editor, and so on. The role assumes the need for interpretation (not propagation) and we continue to press for this. This is not special pleading by religious numpties who want to protect Songs of Praise for ever, but a cultural argument raised by people who think intelligence matters. Much that goes on in the world cannot be understood at face value without an intelligent and informed understanding of the religious dimensions.

Well, that’s that, then, I guess. For society properly to be understood, we need media that take religion seriously and interpret the world in the light of it… as well as interpreting it in the light of world events.

So, we have identified briefly several ethical lenses through which to look at aspects of the media: how they handle the human person (and what this treatment betrays about our anthropological assumptions); truth and accurate representation; and utilitarian assumptions about people, stories and business.

And this leads me to suggest that people of faith need to shamelessly look at, report on, interpret, argue about, represent and question the world as they see it… but always in ways that fit the medium they wish to work in and communicate through. During the Bush Junior administration in the USA, Americans worked through some of the inarticulable dilemmas of private and public life through the characters and contexts of The West Wing – which might be deemed better ‘religious broadcasting’ than Songs of Praise.

The commodification of people for entertainment is pernicious and morally dodgy. Which imposes on all of us who consume media output a moral responsibility for what we consume, how we consume it and what we do with what it does to us. A brilliant illustration of commodification is to be found in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s remarkable and moving 2006 film Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others). The Stasi used surveillance to intimidate, humiliate and control people in the German Democratic Republic. This film shows the consequences for particular people – including the intelligence officer who finds himself humanised – at enormous personal cost – by seeing the humanity behind the ‘cases’. Intrusion into the lives of others becomes unacceptable once you begin to see people as human beings and not simply objects for the entertainment or judgement of others.

If truth matters and is game for exposure in any circumstances, then this must apply consistently – even to those who do the exposing of others. With freedom goes responsibility; with responsibility goes accountability. And, I might say, human beings are to be the masters of their technologies, and not the other way around.

The phone hacking scandal has exposed the ease with which people can be snooped on, watched, followed and stalked. The electronic world means that privacy is rapidly becoming a fantasy when it comes to our engagement with media. Yes, whole new worlds of possibility are opening up – creating new communities, new ways of experiencing the world and relationships, new ways of learning before engaging, and so on. But, it is also a world in which the technology allows enormous power to those whose power needs to be checked. For, I would contest that we live in a world which has lost the capacity – or vocabulary – for ethical conversation (that is, conversation about ethics) on any other grounds than competence. A fundamental tenet of ethics is, as every teenager knows, you can’t get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. In other words, the fact that something is – or is doable – does not imply a moral imperative: we can do it, therefore we may do it. Competence does not imply legitimacy.

In our rapidly changing media world technological competence presents new ethical dilemmas. If we can’t answer them all, we must at least be alert to their importance and not let them go by default. If we do, we might find ourselves in the brave new world lauded by James Murdoch in his 2009 James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival: “There is an inescapable conclusion that we must reach if we are to have a better society. The only reliable, durable, and perpetual guarantor of independence is profit.”

Really? What anthropological assumptions underlie that assertion? Discuss.

Call it coincidence, but when I agreed months ago to do a St Wilfrid Lecture at Ripon Cathedral I didn’t think it would take place in the week the Murdochs returned to the Leveson Inquiry. Having agreed to speak about ethics and the media, I decided it was too big a theme and narrowed it down a little… recognising the context of the Leveson interrogation. (After dinner following the lecture the city hornblower came into the Minster house to blow his horn at the Mayor of Ripon. Surreal, but traditional!)

Here’s the basic text of the lecture, minus the Q & A and all the asides. It is long…

Andrew Marr begins his excellent history of British journalism My Trade with a rhyme by Humbert Wolfe. It goes like this:

You cannot hope / to bribe or twist, / thank God! The / British journalist.

But, seeing what / the man will do / unbribed, there’s / no occasion to.

It’s easy to be cynical, isn’t it? After all, even Wolfe would be gobsmacked at what has emerged from the Leveson Inquiry so far.

Ethics has to do not only with how we behave, but also why we behave the way we behave. That is to say, when thinking about ethics we need to pay attention to the world view, the thinking and moral assumptions that drive the ways in which we live and choose and relate. So, any consideration of media ethics involves not only a questioning of the media – those who own, work, drive and create media content – but also the rest of us: that is, we who consume media output in any of a million ways. If journalists and media operators need to be subject to ethical scrutiny, so do those who consume their product. As Harold Nicolson observed, “We are all inclined to judge ourselves by our ideals; others by their acts.”

So, we need to begin this somewhat discursive look at media ethics by learning something of the media world in which we actually live and move and have our being. Having done a brief tour of some of the contours of today’s changing media environment, we can then move on to take a look at a couple of ethical issues in particular. And, given the potential breadth of any consideration of the media, I will concentrate most of my observations on journalism rather than, say, film, music, advertising or other entertainment media.

However, if what follows bores you, I suggest you fill the time making a note of two books that help us understand some of the trends and realities in media development, particularly print media. I have already referred to Andrew Marr’s excellent My Trade; the other is Nick Davies’s devastating Flat Earth News – of which more later.

In the context of the Leveson Inquiry we are all aware of the bad behaviour of some elements of the press. Even this week we have seen Murdochs Junior and Senior brought back to face detailed questioning not only of practice, but of motive and the ethical pool in which their media organs have been swimming. And just as goldfish do not usually analyse the nature of the water in their bowl, neither have some media operators critically analysed the ethical nature of the air that they breathe. So, Leveson has dragged out an appalling record of (alleged) lying, duplicity, abuse of power, misrepresentation, deliberate defamation, corruption of public officials and police officers, implicit blackmail, criminality of a variety of types… and the emerging picture begs many questions – not only of those who perpetrated this culture, but also of those of us who fed it by buying the product, not challenging destructive media practices, not questioning the effects of such media behaviours, and feeding the monster by being easily entertained by other people’s destruction or humiliation. Anyway, we’ll come back to this later, once we have surveyed the landscape. And I can illustrate some of this further when we get to questions later.

SURVEYING THE MEDIA LANDSCAPE

The media world is changing. You really didn’t need to be told that. My mother was born in 1932 and last week celebrated her 80th birthday. My dad gave her an iPad. She emails form it, takes photos with it and skypes my older brother when he is working in Kuwait. Five years ago she was struggling with a mobile phone. A true silver surfer, she has seen a revolution in media during her lifetime – a revolution that is speeding up by the minute. From no television in her childhood – and she even cut open the mesh on the front of her dad’s first radio in order to see the little people inside it – she now has hundreds of channels on cable and is adept at social media and googling. Fings ain’t what they used to be.

Not many years ago Fleet Street dominated print media (a term that has only been invented recently) and newspapers at national, regional and local level enjoyed wide readerships. More importantly, they offered an intelligent scrutiny of political power – at the local level by having journalists dedicated to following local council debates and scrutinising the papers that fed those debates. Which is one simple way of illustrating that they played an important role in the democratic discourse, posing the questions the rest of us didn’t think of because we didn’t have the time to read all the paperwork. That’s just one example. Now, however, no newspaper (at any level) makes a profit, journalists do not have the time to do the work they used to do, and there are far fewer of them.

But, it isn’t the dominance of radio and television that has done this. Rather, it is the phenomenal sweep of the internet and mobile communications that has led to people dropping the buying of hard copy and obtaining their news and entertainment on their laptops, iPads or smartphones. And there’s probably no going back. In the last month we have heard that the position of Editor-in-Chief at the Yorkshire Post has been cut. Why? Because the digital revolution is so fast and deep that traditional print media cannot keep up.

So, while many of us marvel at and enjoy the opportunities afforded by the new digital platforms, we are also aware of the cost – at many levels – of this radical change in the ways in which people engage with the media. For example, as Nick Davies points out repeatedly in his important and challenging book Flat Earth News, journalists are increasingly thin on the ground, have little time to get out of the office and away from the computer, can no longer provide the detailed scrutiny of power that served the interests of democratic accountability so well. PR output finds its way into reportage unchecked – not because journalists are incompetent, but simply because there isn’t the money to pay for enough of them to do the job we have expected of them on behalf of the public interest and the common good. In other words, reduced professional journalism creates a democratic deficit that impacts on us all. If we won’t pay for it, we won’t get it.

But, journalists cannot be paid with thin air or the gratitude of a loving public. Traditional media have increasingly tried to bolster their particular medium using traditional methods. Take, for example, your local newspaper. Like many people, you probably hate the fact that the front page is always headlined with murder, catastrophe, sexual deviancy, conflict or destructiveness of one sort or another. But, the editor will tell you that good news doesn’t sell; that bad news does. Somehow. It is the unusualness of an event that makes it newsworthy – a breach in a world that we assume should be both ordered and orderly. Let me illustrate briefly.

Several years ago, on my way to Guildford to preach at a service for the judges of the County of Surrey, I passed a newspaper billboard (for the Croydon Advertiser) that proclaimed: ‘Lollipop lady hit with stick’. From the pulpit I asked the judges which bit of this headline I was supposed to be shocked by: that it was a lollipop lady (not a man or a boy); that it was a lollipop lady (rather than an electrician or a lawyer); that she was hit (rather than poked or tickled); or that the hitting was done with a stick (rather than a fork or a wet lettuce)? The judges just laughed under their wigs – which wasn’t very helpful and didn’t answer my questions.

Anyway, the point is that newspapers try to address the decline in traditional newspaper consumption by trying to sell more newspapers – and they think that this might be achieved by having dramatic front pages rather than good news stories involving local puppies being loved by happy children. But, this solution doesn’t actually address the problem: the decline in sales is not related to the blandness of the product; it is because of the decline in usefulness or accessibility of the medium itself. Or, as Bill Clinton didn’t say, ‘It’s the platform, stupid’.

There are those observers, of course, who would say that the result of the economic and financial pressures, the vast reduction in the number of working journalists in various media, and the plurality of media outlets (you can get thousands of TV channels from satellite platforms) is a dumbing down of content. Even the news has to be presented in a way that entertains us. We can’t concentrate; so, we get brief, lowest-common-denominator infotainment – what some commentators think is just the latest way of anaesthetising us from the horrible and complex realities of the world. Neil Postman pointed to this in the great title he chose for his seminal book: Amusing Ourselves to Death.

Anyway, it will come as no surprise to discover that online editions of the Guardian are accessed by forty times the number of people who read the paper on paper.

The challenge for the media, then, is to discover the sorts of business plans that will allow for businesses to make a sufficient profit to enable them to employ professional journalists who have the competence, experience and conditions (time and scope) to dig into the stories that matter… in order to expose corruption, spread good news, interpret the world, shine new light on matters we thought we understood. At the moment traditional print media are surviving with massive financial losses, and by cross-subsidies from other branches of media businesses.

Now, I don’t want to spend the rest of this presentation explaining media businesses or the radical challenges to traditional media platforms. Nor do I think it will be profitable to try to explain how the various contemporary media operate and interconnect. If we want to do media studies we can go to university and do a course. But, we do need to understand something of the real media environment if we are to comprehend anything of the ethical questions thrown up by the demands of this changing environment. Ethics are not abstract and reality impinges on chosen behaviours. I might add, of course, that to understand is not to condone.

THROUGH AN ETHICAL LENS

So, having surveyed very briefly and superficially the changing and challenging media scene, let’s move on to think about the ethics of all of us who create, own, run or consume the media products. I want to do this by first establishing a fundamental principle – fundamental, that is, to a Christian world view.

A Christian anthropology begins from the belief that every person is made in the imago Dei and is, therefore, infinitely valuable. Being so created, each person has freedom and responsibility… and is accountable to God and others who are also made in his image. We are to ‘cultivate the earth’ – that is develop and explore and grow the world – including technology. But, when we lose sight of the value of human being, we will quickly find that anything… eventually… goes. Every person, regardless of their particular compromises and failings, being made in the image of God, is to be respected.

Furthermore, every human being is redeemable. That is to say, it isn’t hard to find the muck of human life; but, do we believe that people can change? A Christian anthropology argues that people – made in the image of God – are redeemable. Therefore, how they behave or misbehave now is not the final word – something Dr Rowan Williams has a lot to say about (mainly in relation to language) in his marvellous book on Dostoyevsky.

Thirdly, human society offers a context of mutual relational accountability. This means that those who wish to stand in judgement on others must, themselves, be accountable. In other words, no hypocrisy on any side.

Now, this is where, as they say, the rubber hits the Leveson road.

The phone hacking scandal is coloured with the deepest of ironies in that those editors and journalists who ‘lost their moral bearings’ have argued that they were only wanting to expose the truth about other people’s lives – that they have a responsibility to (and I quote) ‘hold power to account’. Yet, of course, they located ‘power’ somewhere else and assumed themselves to be the arbiters of truth, the guardians of integrity, the defenders of a moral world. Some journalists still maintain – without the hint of a smirk – that they and their organs have no power… that they simply expose, tell stories, shine a light, describe reality, and leave it up to the now-better-informed to make their own judgements and draw their own conclusions. This is wilful nonsense. Those who have the power to intimidate politicians, destroy reputations, relationships and lives, consider themselves immune from normal moral and legal accountability, are people who shape the world, create a discourse, and not only set agendas for public life, but also assume the right – nay, responsibility – to act as incontrovertible witness, judge and jury in a society they purport to merely observe.

So, I ask: Is it not deeply hypocritical that those who do the judging and exposing are not themselves subject to the same accountability? During the MPs expenses business I received an excoriatingly angry email from one of the journalists involved. I had said on my blog that I thought the newspaper should be sued for incitement to criminal activity – they paid money to get hold of what was confidential data. He argued that this exposure was in the public interest. I asked if we could see the expenses bills of newspaper editors – on the grounds that they also powerfully shape the public discourse and more. He wasn’t pleased.

This ignores the real power that elements of the media have exercised over other people. The fact that a fact about someone is true does not mean that everybody should know it. And something has gone badly wrong when people – flesh and blood human beings – are turned into commodities for other people’s entertainment and titillation at the hands of people who then deny any responsibility for the consequences of their actions on other people’s lives.

When people are misrepresented or misused – held to account by people who hitherto have considered themselves to be unaccountable or untouchable – they betray an empty denial of humanity or human value. And once we start doing that with one category of person, we won’t find it easy to stop the habit. Witness the News of the World. Or listen to Nick Davies – the Guardian journalist who, against all sorts of pressures and threats, doggedly pursued the phone hacking story until it could be hidden no longer: “I know a fair bit about sex and drugs and hypocrisy in Fleet Street: executives whose papers support the war against drugs while shoving cocaine up their nostrils in the office toilets; reporters who attack the sexual adventures of others while routinely dropping their own trousers at the first scent of a willing secretary.”

Journalists may counter that they report the world as disinterested observers. I put it to you that they are shapers of the world along with those about whom they report. There is no moral neutrality to be found here.

Now, this brings us to a second ethical lens through which to look at the media in general and journalism in particular: representation of truth.

Pontius Pilate wasn’t the only person in history to wonder what truth was all about. Truth is elusive. In a relativistic age it is perhaps more slippery than ever. But, if you ask most people what they want from the media – particularly reportage and journalism – they will probably ask for some representation of the truth. And this is where it gets sticky for some of us – where the realities of journalism conflict with the interests of a particular individual. Let me illustrate with a couple of relatively trivial examples from my own experience:

In 2007 I took a group of twenty clergy and lay people from the Croydon Episcopal Area to visit our link diocese of Central Zimbabwe. Times were tough: inflation was by then running at a mere 10,000% and unemployment was reckoned to be around 80%. There was no power, water was not getting pumped into Gweru, people were beginning to get hungry and ill. We were invited to meet the Governor of the Midlands Province – a nice man who welcomed us to his offices. He had invited some of his senior people, but also a journalist with the state-owned newspaper in Harare. Following a robust exchange during the meeting, this journalist cornered me afterwards and pursued his point… on camera. At one point I argued that a confident country with nothing to hide would not ban foreign journalists and then complain about (to their mind) misrepresentation from outside the borders. However, I made the mistake of adding that in a democratic country we all run the risk of being misquoted or misrepresented, but that we also have the opportunity to challenge and respond. This became the next day’s front page headline: ‘Bishop: it is all UK media lies’. Apparently, I had seen no problems in Zimbabwe – it was all UK media misrepresentation.

I spent nearly £400 on my mobile phone pre-empting the damage back in London with the Foreign Office, Lambeth Palace, Church House Westminster and the Diocese of Southwark. To make it worse, a couple of months later a glossy magazine called New African was paraded all over WH Smiths with a three page ‘interview’ with me in which I denied any problems in Zimbabwe. I had done no interview and had no contact with the magazine at all. But, if you google me, you will still get links to this story and there are still people who give me grief when they see it online. (Still, I also saw a headline that read: ‘Prophet drowns during baptism’ and that compensated for the grief. Lousy prophet…)

Nearer to home, I once wrote a book about Christmas. The Sunday Telegraph ran a story about it – or, rather, about one paragraph in (I think) the fourth chapter. The problem came with the headline which, of course, had been written not by the journalist, but by the sub-editor: ‘Bishop says carols are nonsense’. Good story and it travelled the world in hours. According to one newspaper in India I had ‘banned Christmas’ – something Oliver Cromwell tried to do, but failed in the end. For the journalist this was a great story and a good piece. For me it led to fifteen often aggressive radio and television interviews in two days in order for me to try to put the story right. His triumph was my misery… to say nothing of the embarrassment caused to my wife, my colleagues and the church. (I got a barrage of post and emails, one of which suggested ways I might like to take my life and then was signed ‘Yours in Christ’.)

Now, I am not complaining… really. The journalist has to get a story and get it as close to the front page as possible. ‘Bishop says carols are quite nice’ isn’t going to do it. But, I learned the lesson at last that the story is the story – not necessarily what I would like to be the story. It caused me considerable grief, but I survived. The question is, however, was the story true? In one sense it was: I had suggested that (as one of the Wesley brothers had said) we learn our theology from what we sing and not from what we hear from a pulpit – so, if we sing nonsense, we will most likely believe nonsense. I linked this to a comment about babies making no crying…

Yet, the story wasn’t true. I wasn’t saying that carols are nonsense, nor that we shouldn’t be singing them. The point is simply that the journalist was hoping for glory and I was hoping to flog a few books. He got his glory, I didn’t flog many books!

As I said, these are trivial examples, but they bring me back to the most frequently ignored verse in the Bible. The ninth commandment forbids misrepresentation: ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness’… or ‘you will not misrepresent your neighbour’s case’. The journalist has a responsibility to represent and not to misrepresent – even if the media game demands a bit of licence here and there. Of course, the problem is that most victims of misrepresentation are more concerned about their reputation and integrity than about the newspaper’s sales figures or the journalist’s career – especially when the latter is won at the cost of the former. The news moves on; the damage to the individual remains. The internet never forgets…

The former Bishop of Durham, Dr David Jenkins, once wrote of the terrible effects of the media pressure on him when he said that the resurrection was more than a conjuring trick with bones. Quite depressed, he was taken out for lunch by a rabbi friend of his and the rabbi told him a story. A bishop and a rabbi went in a boat on a lake when the rabbi’s skullcap was blown off his head and away onto the water. The bishop got out of the boat, walked on the water, collected the yarmulkah and returned to the boat. The next day the newspaper headline read: BISHOP CAN’T SWIM!

But, if the examples I have cited are relatively trivial, then what do we do with the sort of thing that Nick Davies exposed in Flat Earth News and then in his relentless pursuit of the phone hacking story? For, it is worth noting, it was good, solid, intelligent and morally courageous investigative journalism that rumbled the scandals at the heart of the Murdoch empire – in the teeth of opposition from that bastion of a free press.

I guess the real ethical question this throws up is that of utilitarianism: do the ends justify the means? Can morally dubious behaviour be justified if the ultimate outcome is exposure of corruption? Was the Telegraph right to pay an individual to break his own commitments and steal data for the sake of a public story? Ultimately it can be argued that the public interest was served; but the story was run in such a way as to titillate the interest of the public, too – drawn out over weeks. So, even if we decide the ends (the public interest) were justified by the means (of obtaining the data), this doesn’t let the newspaper off the moral hook for the means it adopted. Accountability cuts more than one way, after all.

So, we have identified briefly three ethical lenses through which to look at aspects of the media: how they handle the human person (and what this treatment betrays about our anthropological assumptions); truth and accurate representation; and utilitarian assumptions about people, stories and business. I think this leads us next to think a little about the phrase used to justify media intrusion into some people’s lives: public interest. Clearly, the publication or transmission of something that is ‘of interest to the public’ is not necessarily ‘in the public interest’, is it? A story that is interesting to a particular community might not be of importance to the wider community addressed by particular media organs. Equally, a matter of real public interest might not be communicable in a form that makes it of interest to the audience. However, ‘public interest’ should not be used as a cover for telling tales that titillate some while destroying the subjects – when the fact of it being interesting to some prurient people says nothing about its importance for the common good. Which brings us back to Leveson.

This must be one of the very few public inquiries to have run for so long and yet still not have lost its power to shock. The fundamental question being addressed by Leveson is: how did a particular media organisation (a) manage to hold such power over public officials, the police and its own industry, (b) develop a deeply and endemically corrupt culture of unaccountable abuse, and (c) have the nerve to pervert the course of justice – allegedly – by attempting industrial-scale destruction of evidence of its wrongdoing? Having addressed these questions, Leveson will go on to draw out the lessons and commend a better way of regulating the press – or, at least, holding the press more accountable not only for its product, but also for its methods and behaviour.

In his Orwell Lecture in November 2011, the editor of the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, reminded us of the context in which the phone hacking story broke. He said: “… I think Orwell would have been deeply interested in the broader story – not of how you regulate the press, but how one man and one corporation came to have such sway over British political, commercial and cultural life – and how we came within days of allowing him a position of even greater dominance.” You will remember that the new coalition government had decided that there was not really a problem in James Murdoch’s News International taking a major holding in BskyB – thus giving him and his business a staggering degree of ownership of a range of media enterprises. James Murdoch was being defended as a fit and proper person, despite the protestations of many of us who were alarmed for a number of reasons. The relentless rise of Murdoch only began to falter at the last minute when the extent of phone hacking began to emerge – challenging previous dismissals of the extent of any wrongdoing and putting a large question mark over the probity of previous refusals by the Metropolitan Police, Ofcom  and the Press Complaints Commission to investigate further.

July 2011 – as Rusbridger recalled: “a month that saw revelations that plumbed new depths in journalism. There were resignations, arrests, a death, parliamentary debates, corporate high drama; family feuding; multimillion-pound payoffs, the closure of a newspaper … and the climax: the “most humble day” in the life of the most powerful media tycoon of this, or of any other, generation.” Yet that was not the beginning and it certainly wasn’t the end of the story. Within weeks the number of people suspected of having been hacked had risen to 5,800. Arrests have continued, prosecutions are now being considered, and Murdoch Junior has had to resign from two of his most prominent positions. Father and son have been summoned and grilled again. They have become the story – a disastrous position for the storytellers to find themselves in.

Yet, what is staggering is that July 2011 followed eighteen months of obfuscation by News International and politicians, intimidation by News International (claiming in print that the Guardian had ‘deliberately misled the British public’ over its allegations of widespread phone hacking), and negligence by a police force that now appears to have been complicit in corruption at different levels. As Rusbridger put it: “… fascinating in what it said about Britain and the settlement so many people in public life had made, over two generations or more, with Rupert Murdoch.”

How did we as a society allow such power and unaccountable freedom to Murdoch’s organs? How did we allow such intimidation to continue for so long? Why did we find it so hard to believe the extent or probity of the allegations against the News of the World and its parent? For, if corrupt journalistic cultures were allowed to grow for so long, they did so with the complicity of a public that gobbled up its product with a voyeuristic passion that now looks shameful. Someone was buying the papers in huge numbers when vulnerable people (the McCanns, for example) were being turned into entertainment commodities for the voyeuristic judgmentalism of a public that surely had lost its own moral bearings.

Yet, nothing should distract us from the ethical mire into which this particular media organisation has dragged us. Not only was there allegedly a culture of bullying in which journalists were compelled to indulge practices they clearly thought were dubious. This company generated its own private intelligence operation – “one that outsourced the dirtiest work to criminals and which, according to people in a position to know, had a formidable private investigation capability.” Intrusion into the private lives of huge numbers of individuals became routine – which suggests that these people were assumed to be dehumanised commodities, depersonalised and to be denied their privacy. Remember the imago Dei?

A brilliant illustration of this to be found in von Donnersmarck’s remarkable and moving 2006 film Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others). The Stasi used surveillance to intimidate, humiliate and control people in the German Democratic Republic. This film shows the consequences for particular people – including the intelligence officer who finds himself humanised – at enormous personal cost – by seeing the humanity behind the ‘cases’. Intrusion into the lives of others becomes unacceptable once you begin to see people as human beings and not simply objects for the entertainment or judgement of others.

If truth matters and is game for exposure in any circumstances, then this must apply consistently – even to those who do the exposing of others. With freedom goes responsibility; with responsibility goes accountability. And, I might say, human beings are to be the masters of their technologies, and not the other way around.

The phone hacking scandal has exposed the ease with which people can be snooped on, watched, followed and stalked. The electronic world means that privacy is rapidly becoming a fantasy when it comes to our engagement with media. Yes, whole new worlds of possibility are opening up – creating new communities, new ways of experiencing the world and relationships, new ways of learning before engaging, and so on. But, it is also a world in which the technology allows enormous power to those whose power needs to be checked. For, I would contest that we live in a world which has lost the capacity – or vocabulary – for ethical conversation (that is, conversation about ethics) on any other grounds than competence. A fundamental tenet of ethics is, as every teenager knows, you can’t get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. In other words, the fact that something is – or is doable – does not imply a moral imperative: we can do it, therefore we may do it. Competence does not imply legitimacy.

In our rapidly changing media world technological competence presents new ethical dilemmas. If we can’t answer them all, we must at least be alert to their importance and not let them go by default. If we do, we might find ourselves in the brave new world lauded by James Murdoch in his 2009 James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival: “There is an inescapable conclusion that we must reach if we are to have a better society. The only reliable, durable, and perpetual guarantor of independence is profit.”

Really? What anthropological assumptions underlie that assertion? Discuss.

I have banged on in this blog a number of times about Nick Davies’s excellent book Flat Earth News in which he describes the death of journalism as we have known and loved it for centuries. His is not a lone voice crying in the developing wilderness. Several thousand jobs in local journalism have disappeared in the last twelve months alone – 1000 last week from the Daily Mail’s regional/local organs. The response to the outcry from journalists against the loss of their jobs and the death of their newspapers has mostly been some version of:’ What’s so special about journalists anyway? They just have to cope like the car workers, financiers and everybody else who is finding the world has changed, but not in their favour.’

In today’s Guardian Polly Toynbee hits the nail on the head when she exposes what is happening to notions of ‘local belonging’, of which for generations local newspapers have been vital agents. She writes: ‘The government talks piously of community engagement – and a newspaper with real journalism is the most vital local forum of all. Before the end of the year, every local paper will be into heavy loss: money unlikely to return in the good times. So how can they be saved, in print and online?’

She goes on at the end of her article to say: ‘Bring in the money available from awful ITV local news. Add in some BBC money: their local news is shamingly bad too, partly because the area covered is too wide. Then oblige local councils to stop wasting money on their own Pravda sheets, and to buy space in clearly defined zones in their local news trusts. It might need a small subvention from council tax, too. Roll all this into a local trust with an obligation to good reporting, fair rules and open access, and you could have independent local news across web, print, radio and television offering a genuine community service. It is on the table.’

She ventures a final appeal: ‘But this is an emergency. Battalions of journalists with local knowledge are being sacked and newspaper expertise lost. Does the government have the imagination and capacity to create an environment where small, locally run independent trusts could flourish?’

sitenewspaperimage1Local journalism has until relatively recently provided the main way in which local people could find out what was happening in the place where they live. Local newspapers would be filled with names and faces and the possibility that ‘you’ might be in the news. But these same newspapers have increasingly become ‘scandal rags’, playing the same games as the tabloids in the search for sales and revenue. Here in Croydon we sometimes wonder if the local newspaper can ever bring itself to celebrate anything here rather than knock it or pick out the dodgy stuff.

But the loss of the local newspaper also takes with it the loss of local accountability. Councils can be slagged off for their spending or inconsistencies, but rarely is the local council meeting fully reported and decisions analysed intelligently. So, the loss is more than jobs and paper; it is also a serious loss of accountability and informed opinion forming.

It will be argued that this role has been overtaken by online journalism. But this is not the case. Internet journalism is usually driven by motivated individuals who bring their own subjective ‘spin’ to their comment (which is what a blog is, surely) – there is no wider accountability involved and ‘information’ can be recorded as fact when there is no check on it and possibly no foundation to it.

Several years ago I heard a national newspaper editor confidently predict the end of newspapers as we know them. He claimed that within five years no newspaper would be paid for, but that newspapers would be free in paper format as they advertised the online content which would be supported by online advertising. He might be right. But it seems to me that we are now going through yet another revolution which could have unintended consequences: not just a shift in the way ‘news’ is brought ot those who wish to hear it, but the potential loss of a common sense of place or belonging or community or accountability.

I strongly warm to Polly Toynbee’s suggestion that local money is put into local news organs with local accountability run by local trusts set up to ensure good reporting of things that matter to a community. The money that currently goes into councils providing their propaganda to every household could go into local newspaper communication, thus encouraging local people to read it (the main source of such information) and demonstrating local commitment to it (subsidised through Council Tax).

The idea of the ‘local’ might have to be redefined and rediscovered in the next couple of years. It must not be lost.